The weeks of carefully orchestrated of leaks and rumors surrounding Microsoft's iPod-like Zune have approached the viral intensity of an Apple product launch. Confirmation finally came in Billboard with the announcement of "a family of hardware and software products" by Chris Stephenson, general manager of marketing for MSN Entertainment Business. As rumored, the product will ape Apple by integrating a music player with software downloads. But it will also one-up the iPod by offering wi-fi for functions that will include downloading, purchasing, and exchanging songs with a limited number of other users. Not an original idea, but maybe a powerful one. Stephenson raised several other possibilities without confirming any of them: "The ability to connect the different devices is a key part of the strategy. Whether it's a portable media device, or a phone, or the Xbox or Media Center PC, the idea is you can access your entertainment from anywhere." The music industry, eager for "flexible" pricing, will be happy to release its foie-gras-engorged gut from the 99-cent corset imposed by Steve Jobs and iTunes. Not so pleased are the manufacturers and download services who have licensed Microsoft's PlaysForSure DRM. They are effectively frozen out of the new integrated Zune hardware/software environment. Prospects for Zune's survival? Send me one and I'll get back to you.
Stepping up its anti-obscenity campaign, the Federal Communications Commission is asking broadcasters for tapes of live sporting events. Government employees are going to sift through them just to make sure an athlete, coach, or spectator hasn't spoken the f-word or some other weapon of mass corruption. This does not sit well with broadcasters who have added on-field mics and in-car cameras to give viewers more of a you-are-there feeling. "It looks like they want to end live broadcast TV," one anonymous TV executive told The Hollywood Reporter. The latest federal obscenity law imposes fines of as much as $325,000 per violation, a tenfold increase from the former law. It remains unclear how this would affect President Bush, who signed the anti-pottymouth law and then went off to a summit full of world leaders and uttered the s-word into an open mic.
Some speakers start communicating immediately. Ten seconds after I got these JBLs started, I was engrossed. Before I set them up, I'd just gotten halfway through the first disc of Vladimir Feltsman's hard-to-find four-disc set of Bach's The Well-Tempered Clavier. Having just rearranged my reference system to better visual and sonic advantage, I was loath to pull it apart again, but duty called. The Cinema Sound speakers simply picked up where my reference speakers left off. They sounded neutral, substantial, and well able to keep up with both the recording's shifting dynamics and its liquid beauty.
Gracenote, the leading music metadata provider—for the iPod, no less—has cut a deal with music publishers to deliver lyrics in digital form. The company says possible applications include digital music retailers, mobile providers, search engines, music portals, and of course music players and servers. The prospect of seeing the words to a song scrolling down your MP3 player screen is an appealing and timely one. Once listeners could read lyrics in giant LP gatefolds or CD booklets. But even in the heyday of those formats, that wasn't always a given, and in the age of downloads, lyrics have been relegated to unauthorized websites (which may soon see a crackdown). So Gracenote's move is progress. But in a music industry where artists don't always get their fair share, how much can a songwriter expect to get paid if her lyrics are licensed as a new product? Emails on this subject to Gracenote and Gracenote's publicist went unanswered.
What's in a name? Logitech bills this iPod accessory as a set of "portable speakers," not a "system." That makes it smaller than such other iPod-compatible notables as the Bose SoundDock, Klipsch iGroove, and Apple's own Hi-Fi. It also signals a reduction in pricing, features, and expectations. The mm50 doesn't try to blow you away. It just provides an intravenous feed of music to keep you from going bonkers. In that respect it should not be underestimated.
Consumers are buying more DVDs this year—but are also buying fewer fresh movie titles. That's what the folks at NPD's VideoWatch are saying. Sales of new DVDs rose seven percent during the first quarter of 2006. However, only nine percent of consumers said they intended to buy DVDs of movies running in theaters during the first five months of 2006, down from 11 percent in the same period of 2005. Maybe Hollywood needs to make better films. Overall, says NPD, for the year ending in April 2006: "47 percent of all videos were rented, 30 percent were purchased from a store, 15 percent were from subscription services, eight percent from pay-per-view (PPV) or video-on-demand (VOD) services and one percent was downloaded directly from the Web."
Students at Cornell, Purdue, George Washington University, and other schools won't download music from university-approved services even if it's free, according to The Wall Street Journal. These and other schools began offering free (often meaning subsidized) downloads to prevent illegal downloads from attracting lawsuits and choking servers. But these experiments have flunked for several reasons. Onerous DRM restrictions are often attached. For instance, the download may be free, but transferring to a music player or burning a CD may not be. At Cornell, students lost interest in Napster when they discovered they'd lose the right to use their downloads upon graduating. The non-iTunes services have also met resistance from iPod and/or Mac users, the latter an estimated 20 percent of the student population.
HD DVD has adopted a Thomson-developed technology that would insert simulated film grain into high-def movie releases. The problem: Digital video compression codecs tend to lose the natural grain in film-based cinematography. The, um, uh, solution: "Thomson has come up with a way that allows the film grain to be put back, or at least simulated, into the movie after it's been compressed and decompressed," says Gavin Shutz of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers. Film Grain Technology™ will appear in two HD DVD players from Toshiba and one from RCA. It has also found its way into Sonic Solutions HD DVD production tools. So even if you shun the fakery in players, it will still find its way into at least some movie titles. OK, I haven't seen it yet, but isn't fake film grain the aesthetic equivalent of artificial edge enhancement? What ever happened to the idea of reproducing the source as accurately as possible?